The Amazing Language Learning Machine Inside Your Head Ep 579

A digital image of a human brain made of green moss. Your brain is equipped with all the tools you need to learn any language.

📝 Author: Hilary

📅 Published:

💬 2519 words ⏳ Reading Time 13 min


You Are Born With All The Tools You Need To Learn A New Language

You are born with the ability to learn any language. It doesn’t matter where you are born on this planet, for most of us within a few short years, you are processing and ready to speak a new language. Amazing. Have you thought about how our brains store that language? What about people with more than one language? Today’s podcast is really interesting!

We are going to look at how the brain processes language and how it stores it. And we’ll also talk about what happens when someone has two languages. It turns out that the brain is an amazing machine for processing language.

Our brains are constantly making connections, processing information, and creating new neural pathways. We do it when we memorize a poem or learn a new language. We are hard-wired to learn.

It’s nice to see some language learning research data will encourage all of us language learning students.

Most Unusual Words:

Astonishingly
Stable
Estimated
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Encouraging Research3
You Can3
A Lot2
Arrive At2
Help You2
English Fluently2

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Transcript: The Amazing Language Learning Machine Inside Your Head

Some encouraging research in language learning

Hi there. Today let's talk about language learning. Most of us have the idea that language learning is difficult, so I'm gonna share with you today some research which is really encouraging about language learning. You know, our goal, our point, our purpose is to help you arrive at fluency in English. And if you've done our Seven Rules Course , you'll understand the mechanisms, the method behind what we do here. But language learning is a challenge. So let me share this encouraging research with you. You'll be amazed, I think.

Hello, I’m Hilary, and you’re listening to Adept English. We will help you to speak English fluently. All you have to do is listen. So start listening now and find out how it works.

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Language learning in schools

Let's get on meanwhile, with that encouraging research, shall we? So an article published in The Conversation back in August this year, that's 2022, by Monika Schmid of the University of York.

She's done some surprisingly encouraging research about learning a language. The article was published just after the GCSE and A level results were out, as usual in the UK in August. So these exams are the ones that 16 year olds and 18 year olds take. 16 year olds take GCSEs, which stands for General Certificate in Secondary Education. And the 18 year olds take their A Levels or Advanced Levels. And the A level results are what determine whether or not they're getting to university or onto some other course of study or training. So they're important exams.

You can take the IGCSE, the International GCSE in many parts of the world and some countries have GCSEs, just like in the UK. They have GCSEs in Nigeria, for example. And a lot of Commonwealth countries do the A level as well.

Language learning is 'astonishingly stable'

So the evidence cited in this newspaper article is very surprising. They're saying that the knowledge of a foreign language as learned in school stays 'astonishingly stable' over a long period of time.

Vocabulary here - 'astonishingly'? Well, that's A S T O N I S H I N G L Y, 'astonishingly'. And that's an adverb, it describes the verb. And it's from the verb 'to astonish'. If you 'astonish' someone, it means that you surprise them, but it's a lot more surprise - it's like 'extreme surprise', astonishment. So 'astonishingly' means 'very, very surprisingly' - stable, S T A B L E. Now, that can be a noun and it's where you might put a horse. A horse's house is called 'a stable', but here it's an adjective. And if something is 'stable', it means it's 'unchanging'.

So basically what we're saying here is that if you learn a foreign language in school, that foreign language knowledge that you've gained is 'stable over time'. It means you really don't lose it, and that apparently is so, even if you don't use it. There is a phrase 'use it or lose it'. And the suggestion here is for that, for language learning that's not true.

Further research corroborating the longevity of language learning

So Professor Monika Schmid, the author and the person who's conducted the research, she cites another piece of research that was done 40 years ago. She says, The psychologist Harry P Bahrick carried out an investigation of some 600 Americans who had learned Spanish in high school up to 50 years previously.

Apparently, there's a small amount of loss three to six years after the lessons have ended. But this researcher found mainly that the knowledge of Spanish appeared 'stable' even 50 years after they'd learnt it! So it's as though, once it's learnt, these words just stick around in your memory. You don't forget them.

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Rather like the words of your native language, perhaps? Even if you're not using them as well, which I found surprising. It's estimated that language learners keep hold of 70% of the language learning they've done, even if not using it. But in other subjects, that information erodes. I'm thinking of History. I can remember what I studied in History at school, but I certainly can't remember the detail of it.

Why does your language learning last 50 years or more?

In her study, Professor Monika Schmid carried out tests on English speaking people who were students of French 50 years ago, and they still remembered the grammar and vocabulary just as well as those who learned it more recently. And that's true where they hadn't used their French for many years. I found that really surprising and encouraging. But once it's in your brain, it's there for life it seems!

Professor Monika Schmid, I think it's Schmid, S C H M I D, says "Some parts of language, mainly the vocabulary are memorized in the same way as facts, rules of algebra, dates, names, and so on. This memory system is indeed vulnerable to (some) erosion." That means you do lose a little of it.

She says. " Other parts though, like grammar, are learned in a way that is much more similar to riding a bicycle. We use the part of our brain that is good at remembering rules and sequences. So grammar becomes more like a reflex and that kind of knowledge resists forgetting."

That's the learning that we're talking about that becomes automatic. So is Monica Schmid saying that vocabulary memory erodes, meaning it is lost? Or does she not mean that? That's a little bit confusing.

Using your native language keeps alive the other languages you learned!

However, she does go on to say that because vocabulary in another language has its equivalent in your language, it gets 'refreshed' each time you use the word in your own language. And that's even if you aren't using your second language, and even if they're not similar sounding words. So she gives the example of 'banana' and 'banane' in French. So every time you say 'banana' in English, you are reminded of 'une banane' in French.

She says that the neurons that contain the words for an object also contain the word in the other language that you learned. So the word in your second language is stimulated and refreshed every time you use that word in your native language. She gives the example of 'apple' in English and the French for 'apple', if you know it, is 'pomme', P O M M E. If you're an English speaker, apparently each time you say the word 'apple', the French for 'apple' - 'pomme' is also stimulated and refreshed in your brain. So similarly, 'potato' will stimulate 'pomme de terre' or 'Kartoffel', if you know German. That's without you realizing it. That's automatic and unconscious.

But you do have to 'polish' your second language

Professor Monika Schmid also makes the point that it doesn't mean that you can just start chatting in a foreign language, fluently and automatically. I think most of us language learners do know that! And it's perhaps the case that if you learnt a language in school, you probably didn't arrive at being fluent anyway. It takes far more listening to a language than is done in school to help that happen.

But what it does mean is that grammar and vocabulary that you learned up to 50 years ago is still in there somewhere. You haven't forgotten it. You haven't lost it all together.

We have a saying in English - 'It's at the back of my mind', meaning that some piece of information or some memory is not at the forefront of my mind. It's not what I'm focused on, but it's in there somewhere. It can be 'wakened up', if you like.

Some of the people in this research who were tested, learned their second language 50 years ago in school. They haven't used that language since. And they still haven't lost it. They could still answer the questions and do quite well on a written test. The human brain is amazing, isn't it?

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And fewer children are studying languages

The article also talks about how there is a decline in the numbers of students - children studying languages at GCSE and A level. That's disappointing.

In fact, amongst my three children, when my daughters, who're older went through school, it was obligatory to learn a language at GCSE level. They had no choice. So I encouraged both of them to learn French as we have family in France and it makes sense. However, now that my son is doing his GCSEs, the language learning isn't obligatory.

They're no longer made to do a language. He knew I wanted him to do French, but he didn't want to do it and has chosen some other subject instead. That seems a shame, especially when we now know that your language learning in school stays with you a lot longer. A lot longer than any of us had realized!

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So perhaps this research supports the idea that language learning in schools should go on for longer. Most children in British schools learn either French or German and Spanish, probably up until Year 9, so up to the age of 15. And then they're permitted to drop it when they choose their GCSE subjects.

I think rather like PE, a language should be something that you continue with for another couple of years because this language learning it appears, stays with you possibly forever. So it's well worth doing!

Encouraging news - vocabulary and grammar you learn now may still be in your brain in 50 year's time!

But also let that serve as some encouragement to you in your language learning. We do often think about how difficult it is to learn a language and how long it takes. But I think this is encouraging. Whatever vocabulary you commit - and I would imagine it's - to long term memory now, your brain will remember it for many years to come.

Maybe even you'll remember it in 50 years time. Wow! Your brain is amazing! And getting the grammar to be automatic and the vocabulary to be stored in long term memory and available and ready when you want to speak? Well, of course, as we know, that's best achieved by lots and lots of listening. That's what we do. That's what we help you with at Adept English.

Goodbye

Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.

Thank you so much for listening. Please help me tell others about this podcast by reviewing or rating it. And, please share it on social media. You can find more listening lessons and a free English course at adeptenglish.com

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